It seemed for a moment as if I had happened upon a World War II U.S. Army airfield. As I drove into the parking lot of the Pilot House Restaurant, near Hummel Field in Topping, Virginia, a gleaming blue and yellow open cockpit aircraft landed and parked near the fence. The pilot hopped out of the cockpit dressed in a typical WWII leather helmet with goggles and a leather flying jacket. He looked like he had just come from central casting on a movie set about WWII pilots.
After he secured his vintage airplane, I spoke to the pilot, a charming man, whose name is Michael Kuhnert. During our conversation, I asked how he became interested in flying. His interest, or perhaps I should say his passion, goes back to his childhood growing up in West Berlin, Germany.
In July of 1948, while flying into Tempelhof in West Berlin, airlift pilot Colonel Gail Halvorsen noticed a ragtag group of about thirty children at the barbed wire topped cyclone fence just before the runway. After he landed, he borrowed a jeep and drove out to the fence and talked to the children. He had just one chocolate bar in his pocket, and he gave it to one of the children. That child immediately shared the candy with his friends. Halvorsen was struck by the behavior of the children. While they had not had candy in many months, they did not beg. He said, “These children were so grateful for flour to be free, they would not lower themselves to be beggars for anything more.” Halvorsen said, “I was so moved by what I saw and their incredible restraint that I promised them I would drop enough gum for each of them the next day as I came over their heads to land.” That was the start of the Candy Bomber flights. Halvorsen made little parachutes and attached them to candy. As he landed, he dropped candy to the children. After several weeks of candy bombing, he was caught by a superior officer. Halvorsen was threatened with a court martial. Immediately after which he was pardoned and told by his commander, General William H. Tunner to “Keep it up.” The good will created by those candy bombs and the newspaper and magazine stories made history.
Years later a child in Tempelhof attended a reenactment of the famous candy drop as part of a yearly open house at Tempelhof. He and his chums scrambled for the parachuted candy just as the children did during the Berlin airlift. That little boy is now an open cockpit aviator in Middlesex County. Michael Kuhnert got his first taste of aviation as he clung to a fence watching airlift pilot Gail Halvorsen reenact one of his famous flights when West Berlin was cut off from the rest of the world by Joseph Stalin. Skilled Allied pilots flew desperately needed supplies into Tempelhof. He was smitten from the start and vowed
he would one day be a pilot. He tried as a youth growing up
in Berlin to become a pilot, but circumstances and post-war rules prohibiting the training of pilots made it impossible to follow his dream.
Instead Kuhnert learned how to sail and went on to get his Captain’s license. He spent several years doing transatlantic yacht deliveries and running his own sailing vessel in and out of exotic ports like St. Lucia and back and forth to Europe. Kuhnert has sailed offshore more than 80,000 miles. In the 90s, he decided he would follow his lifelong dream of flying and to do it in Virginia.
He began to fly in 1997, then worked as a Part 135 commercial charter pilot and earned his flight instructor certificate. Part 135 is the FAA term for an on demand charter operation has over 6,000 hours of flight time logged, over 3000 of which come from flight instruction. Kuhnert is Chief Pilot and owner of Bay Aviation which he started in 2007. Interestingly, Kuhnert has more flying time in the PT-19 than most WWII PT-19 pilots. Kuhnert is a member of the Commemorative Air Force as well as the Operations Officer for the Old Dominion Squadron based in Franklin, Virginia. He is the instructor and check pilot for the squadron’s Ryan PT-22 and Stinson L-5 aircraft.
The Commemorative Air Force’s Old Dominion Squadron is based at Franklin Municipal Airport in Franklin, Virginia. The squadron maintains and operates a Stinson OY1 Sentinel reconnaissance airplane and a Ryan PT-22 Recruit trainer aircraft. The squadron has nearly 50 members and participates in flying shows through the Mid-Atlantic region. Kuhnert is a very active member in the Old Dominion Squadron. He flies to many shows where he and his crew provide rides in his PT-19.
Over the years, Michael has provided more than a thousand passengers with the unique and unforgettable experience of an open-cockpit warbird ride at his home base, Hummel Field, and at various air shows in the eastern United States. In February 2009, Kuhnert purchased a 1943 Fairchild PT-19. The PT-19 series was developed from the Fairchild M-62 when the United States Army Air Corps first ordered the aircraft in 1940 as part of its expansion program. The cantilever low-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear and tail wheel design was based on a two-place, tandem-seat, open cockpit setup. The simple but rugged construction included a fabric-covered welded steel tube fuselage. The remainder of the aircraft used plywood construction, with a plywood-sheathed center section, outer wing panels and tail assembly. An inline engine allowed for a narrow frontal area which was ideal for visibility while the widely set-apart fixed landing gear allowed for solid and stable ground handling.
The M-62 first flew in May 1939 and won a fly-off competition later that year against seventeen other designs for the new Army training airplane. Fairchild was awarded its first Army PT contract for an initial order on September 22, 1939. The original production batch of 275 was powered by the inline 175 hp Ranger L-440-1 engine and designated the PT-19. In 1941, mass production began and 3,181 of the PT-19A model, powered by the 200 hp L-440-3, were made by Fairchild. An additional 477 were built by Aeronica and 44 by the St. Louis Aircraft Corporation. The PT-19B, of which 917 were built, was equipped for instrument flight training by attaching a collapsible hood to the front cockpit. Compared to the earlier biplane trainers, the Fairchild PT-19 provided a more advanced type of aircraft. Speeds were higher and wing loading more closely approximated that of combat aircraft, with flight characteristics demanding more precision and care. Its virtues were that it was inexpensive, simple to maintain and amazingly quiet. The PT-19 was known as the Cradle of Heroes. It was one of a handful of primary trainer designs that were the first stop on a cadet’s way to becoming a combat pilot. Colonel Halvorsen was one of those heroes. These planes were delivered to various bases all over the country by WASPs (Women’s Air force Service Pilots) between 1942-1944.
The PT-19 series were rapidly integrated into the US and Allied training programs, serving throughout World War II and beyond. Even after their retirement in the late 1940s, a substantial number found their way onto the US and other civil registers, being flown by private pilot owners. Kuhnert’s meticulously maintained PT-19 is equipped with a 200 HP Fairchild Ranger-440-5 engine. Kuhnert says he loves to fly his PT-19 because it is so much fun and it is what flying is supposed to be.
In addition to providing the thrill of flying in an actual WWII airplane, Kuhnert teaches people how to fly. At his base at Hummel Feld in Topping, Kuhnert teaches flying to students young and old who share his yearning to fly. Over the years, Kuhnert has provided rides for pilots actually trained on PT-19s and for scores of aviation enthusiasts.
One of his great joys was to be able to actually meet Colonel Gail Halvorsen, his childhood hero. Kuhnert invited Halvorsen to take a ride in his PT-19. They soon discovered that Halvorsen had actually trained on a PT-19 at a base in Miami, Oklahoma in 1943 which also happened to be where Kuhnert’s PT-19 was based at that time. It is entirely possible Halvorsen actually flew the same plane when he was in training.
You can’t miss Kuhnert’s PT-19, if he is not out flying, you will see the blue plane with yellow wings near the side of the road on Route 3 with a big white sign attached to propeller
that simply states RIDES. Kuhnert flies out of Hummel Field in Topping, Virginia.
There is no flying experience like flying in an open cockpit warbird plane like the PT-19. The view is incredible as Kuhnert flies over the farms, inlets and homes. A scenic flight will provide views like no other when familiar landmarks fall into place. The thrill of a flight with Michael Kuhnert is one of the premier attractions of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Kuhnert says a lot of business comes from people who buy a gift certificate for a flight to give as a present to some loved one they know who has an interest in flying and vintage aircraft. He said the number of veteran pilots from that era is dwindling, but he stills has two or three a year. Kuhnert says it is as much a thrill for him as it is for the old pilots to take them up in his PT-19. He says he loves to take people up because everyone is happy when they have experienced the thrill of open cockpit flying.
Check out his website at www.bayaviationonline.com. There are actual videos that will give you a taste of what it
is like to fly over the area. Perhaps even your own home.
Or, call 804-758-9500.